Irish commentator on Ukraine has history of downplaying controversy around Ukrainian neo-Nazi Azov Battalion

Irish commentator on Ukraine has history of downplaying controversy around Ukrainian neo-Nazi Azov Battalion

An Irish commentator on recent events in Ukraine appears to have previously defended and downplayed the actions of the notorious Azov Battalion. Businessman Paul Niland has in the last few years come to the defence of the battalion which is populated with neo-Nazis. The force even features imagery associated with Nazism on its official insignia.

In 2016 Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the UN accused the battalion of having engaged in looting of civilian property and torture during the war in Donbas region of Ukraine.

A “small” neo-Nazi problem

Speaking with the Irish Times on 13 February, the Dublin-born Niland told the paper he wouldn’t be leaving Ukraine as tensions with Russia mounted. Instead, the paper reported he’d decided to join a local defence battalion to prepare in case of armed conflicted with the Russian military. Niland gave an update to RTÉ Radio 1’s The Business as recently as 19 February where he repeated his intention to stay and “resist any attempt to occupy my home”.

But in tweets dating back to 2014 Niland appears to minimise the controversy surrounding the Azov Battalion which the New York Times has described as “openly neo-Nazi”. In one tweet he argued that the battalion’s logo is only “used by a couple of hundred people” and “does not a neo-nazi [sic] state make”.

The logo in question contains two symbols heavily linked to Nazism. One of them is known as the Wolfsangel, which the Wehrmacht and SS used during the Nazi era. Also on the battalion’s insignia is the Sonnenrad. This symbol is commonly associated with neo-Nazism and the Third Reich, with Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler’s castle and SS headquarters having the symbol inlayed on the floor.

Writing in September 2014, Niland argued that Avoz is “a small group” and “Tiny”. The following month he implied criticism of the battalion was cynical, writing that it’s “the new bad guy for Russian media” and it’s now “Azov’s turn”. Also in September the same year he defended the battalion by declaring that it’s “one group fighting to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity against a foreign invader”. As of 2015 there were roughly 1,000 troops in the battalion which in 2021 was actively recruiting new members via social media.

Niland has continued to defend Azov over the years. In 2016 he said the battalion has “just a few nut jobs in their ranks” and that it “hardly qualifies as extremist anyway”. Earlier that year he wrote that he has “great respect for the efforts of Azov on the battlefield”. Jumping to 2018, he again downplayed the risk the battalion poses. Writing for the Kyiv Post Niland declared that Azov “is one battalion of many” and “the number of those with antisocial opinions in Azov is a subset of the overall group”.

More recently, in early February this year, he wrote for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a think tank based in Washington DC dedicated to the study of Central and Eastern Europe, on the issue of current tensions with Russia. On its Facebook page CEPA says it wants to promote economic and political stability in the region and create “close and enduring ties to the United States”.

On the CEPA website Niland insisted it’s a myth the threat Nazis pose in Ukraine is worse compared to other countries. Niland opined that “Such people, sadly, can be found everywhere” and “such views are proportionally far less common in Ukraine than they are in other, even European, countries”. Although Ukraine is not alone in having an issue with extremist infiltration of the military, it’s probably the only state with a neo-Nazi segment fully integrated into its armed forces.

Niland operates a suicide prevention hotline in Ukraine for military veterans and their families. The charity in question, Lifeline Ukraine, has received backing from both the British Embassy in Ukraine as well as the US State Department in the past. As a result of the hotline’s success the American Chamber of Commerce presented him with its 2020 Thanksgiving Choice of the Business Community Award.

The Beacon reached out to Niland via his Ukrainian charity but has yet to receive a response.

A screenshot of one of Niland's tweets in which he writes the neo-Nazi battalion "hardly qualifies as extremist anyway".
A screenshot of one of Niland’s tweets in which he writes the neo-Nazi battalion “hardly qualifies as extremist anyway”.

War Crimes

Azov’s controversial history is well documented, with its neo-Nazi underpinning having come under scrutiny in the last few years.

A 2019 report in the Nation highlighted that the battalion had recruited extremists from across the globe. What’s more, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has also noted an FBI investigation into extremism in the US which uncovered that the battalion “participated in training and radicalizing U.S.-based white supremacist organizations”.

Both HRW and the UN have also accused the battalion of committing crimes against civilians and prisoners of war during the conflict with Russia which began 2014.

In 2016 the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a report on human rights in Ukraine between the period of November 2015 to February 2016. The report revealed “extensive use of civilian buildings and locations by the Ukrainian military and the Azov regiment, and looting of civilian property”. Members of the OHCHR met four detainees who claimed they’d been tortured by Ukraine’s counter-intelligence apparatus and members of the Azov Battalion. According to the OHCHR the prisoners were “detained incommunicado for some time”, were denied medical treatment for injuries caused by torture, “and that evidence extracted through torture was being used in their trial”.

A follow-up report the OHCHR published regarding human rights in the area in the period of February to May 2016 details similar behaviour. The report documented one case where a “man with a mental disability was subject to cruel treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence by eight to 10 members of the ‘Azov’ and ‘Donbas’ battalions”. As a result of the assaults the man’s health “deteriorated” and he was eventually placed in a psychiatric hospital.

Also pointed to in the same report is an account of another case of torture the Azov Battalion carried out. Three members of the neo-Nazi force detained a man “for supporting the ‘Donetsk people’s republic’”. The battalion’s soldiers held him in a basement where he was “continuously interrogated and tortured”. According to the OHCHR he was tortured “with electricity, gas mask and subjected to waterboarding and he was also beaten in his genitals”.

Both the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court define torture as a war crime.

The battalion’s background was again the topic of conversation in the media in last week after an image of a Ukrainian grandmother receiving weapons training went viral. It was later revealed that Azov was behind the exercise.

Featured image via YouTube – VICE News 

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